Exclamation Point Points

After thirty years of my wife insisting, I am now reading Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. And it’s a wondrous thing. For a first novel, Auel created a rich world based on sound (at the time) scientific speculation, bent the rules within acceptable parameters, expertly manipulated plot twists and turns for maximum effect, and created a modern classic that can be read as a great adventure or as something much deeper (I could make a great argument for its being the ultimate feminist novel). It’s a Great American Novel.

I only have a few minor quibbles with what she’s done with the book. I’m wondering if the dialogue is a little too rich for being sign language. She ends one chapter too many with antagonist Broud plotting to get even with heroine Ayla (as my wife puts it, it’s almost like he’s twirling a mustache while he thinks these things). And Auel uses exclamation points in action scenes on occasion.

Not a lot. I’ve noted two or three instances. Not enough to drag her down into L. Ron Hubbard pulpdom, but enough to make me think about the subject.

My policy on exclamation points is that I never use them in narrative:

The cars collided.
- not -
The cars collided!

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, when you put an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, it adds an enormous amount of emphasis on what is being said. It had better be darn important if you’re going to do it!

Second, when you put an exclamation point at the end of narrative, it feels final. Like there’s nothing else that needs to be said beyond that point. You’ve made the ultimate statement on the subject!

Back to our car accident description above. If I dared to write The cars collided! I would not follow it up with anything else. The emphasis would all be right there in one sentence, which, like haiku, had better say exactly what you wanted to say on the subject since you punctuated it thusly.

However, without the exclamation point, I would go on, perhaps turning the accident into a ballet of broken glass and bending metal:

The cars collided. The grille of her car went first, shattering, blowing back against the wall of the radiator, which bent and burst, hemorrhaging sticky green fluid across the asphalt road. The hood crumpled up, bending into a tent as it was pushed up over the engine. Then the windshield webbed and gave way into thousands of jagged pieces, spraying in on her as momentum carried the car forward. By this point the airbag on the steering wheel was just a memory, having caught her head as it whipped forward, collapsing as the seat belt caught her and threw her back.

Now go back and imagine that with an exclamation point after the first sentence. It breaks breaks up the rhythm of the words, too much of a full stop to allow anything else to proceed.

I should note here that if you’re writing a novel for young readers, all bets are off. Exclamation points in narrative bring a different tone and add a sense of excitement to the proceedings. That’s probably why, when I see exclamation points in narrative, it comes across as having a juvenile feel.

On the other hand, I have no problem using them in dialogue – just not all the time. Again, it has to do with the rhythm of the words. There are times when I might want to write:

“Get out of my house,” screamed Kate.

and there might be times when I want to express it this way:

“Get out of my house!”

To me, either is acceptable. It just depends on how you want the dialogue to flow.

So my advice is don’t use exclamation points too often!

4 Responses

  1. Brilliant!

  2. I can’t even imagine using exclamation points except as you say, as parts of written dialogue. They’ve become as overused as swear words. A well-placed expletive works if it is used judiciously and strategically – but peppering them throughout a discourse distracts from the plot sometimes. (Hey, maybe you could write something about that for one of your blogs)

    This is kind of how I would use blue words:

    The shrunken woman pulled her shawl close over her shoulders as her rheumy eyes glared over her glasses at the disheveled insurance adjuster.

    “I’m sorry for your situation ma’am, but your policy just does not cover loss of home as a result of a tornado dropping a tree on it from six counties over.”

    She frowned, and looked down, while he stood there, hands in pockets, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot in the biting early morning wind.

    A few moments later, she looked up at him again and said “well, fuck.”


    Like swear words, I think exclamation points are often used when the author is too lazy to figure out a better way to indicate intensity. The page is the author’s canvass, and he has an opportunity to paint a picture. If done well, he’ll naturally avoid short cuts like swear words and exclamation points, preferring instead to show nuance and body language, and other tools so readily available to him.

  3. I had never thought of exclamation point usage until I read this. You make several valid points. I need to look over my ms to see if I have any and remove them if possible. On the topic of profanity, it has purposes, but I don’t like to use it in the narrative voice. My characters may think and speak that way, but the general narrator is more of a reporter for me. Reporters rarely swear when live. Thanks for the post.

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